Manchester United will attempt to dissuade Roy Keane from leaving Old Trafford next summer with the offer of a new 12-month contract, but have already commenced preparations for life without the irrepressible Irishman by formulating a pre-contract agreement to present to Michael Ballack on 1 January.
The German international is Sir Alex Ferguson's leading candidate to replace Keane and has so far resisted every attempt by his employers Bayern Munich to win a commitment to a new deal running until 2010, raising expectations at Old Trafford that he is willing to complete a lucrative free transfer when his contract at the Allianz Arena expires at the end of this season.
Ballack, who at 28 is approaching the prime of his career, was told in August by Bayern official Uli Hoeness that he had "until September, the beginning of October at the latest" to give a final decision on his future and is free to sign a pre-contract agreement with any foreign club after midnight on 31 December. The midfielder prevailed in a similar stand-off with former club Bayer Leverkusen to join Munich on a free transfer in 2002 and United officials, with the backing of the Glazer family, have prepared an offer that will secure his signature in January rather than allow him to showcase his talents as a free agent at next summer's World Cup.
United's determination to land Ballack, however, is not a concession of defeat in attempts to convince Keane to extend his 12-year association with the club. There was no official comment yesterday on the captain's declaration that he intends to walk away from Old Trafford next summer and though United were taken aback by the timing of the announcement, the sentiments he expressed were of no surprise.
Keane appeared to pave the way for a move to Celtic, his boyhood ambition, when he spoke of playing for two more years at "another club or in another country" and he is believed to have been told to expect a two-year contract worth £50,000 to £60,000 a week if he completed a free transfer to Glasgow. Those terms are far superior to what he can expect if he stays at United, where the policy of offering only one-year, incentive-based deals to players over 30 would represent a significant reduction in the 34-year-old's current £80,000 to £90,000 a week contract.
Ryan Giggs is currently tied to such terms, though his basic wage increases dramatically once he passes the threshold of approximately 20 games.
Those improved terms are then backdated to the start of the player's contract and United officials, who view Keane's comments as an invitation to commence negotiations as much as a signal that he is ready to seek pastures new, are willing to open talks with the midfielder's lawyer Michael Kennedy in advance of the April deadline which their captain insisted was "too late".
United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz has revealed that Ferguson intends to talk to Keane over his decision to air his intentions in public and there is no doubt that the United manager will lead the delegation enticing the inspirational captain to stay, even though the coaching role that has been suggested no longer appeals to the man from Cork.
"At the right moment, and in the right way, the manager will address the situation with Roy," said Queiroz; "The reaction is simple: from the management side our most important priorities are to win the next game and to deal with the appalling injuries we have at the club.
"Then the manager, at the right moment and in the right way, will address the situation. The right way will be to deal with it in private and in confidence, not in public."
United are loath to lose a man who has come to symbolise so much of the club's success since his arrival from Nottingham Forest in 1993, although Queiroz was more pragmatic in his assessment of Keane's situation.
He added: "We were aware of the statement immediately after; we are aware of everything that is said about the club, but not before, you have to have free speech.
"I don't see anything disturbing in his words, if you think about the position, contribution, age, performance and history of a player like Roy at this club, then I think the words he said were very natural. You don't replace great players, whether they are Pele, Maradona, Eusebio or Roy Keane, you just create new players in new teams, that is the only way the game moves forward."Reuse content